Scenarios of genocide in South Sudan

Although it remains in doubt, if the United Nations Security Council finally imposes an arms embargo on South Sudan this week, the international community may feel that it has responded to the dire warning of genocide made 19 days ago.  But the ingredients for genocide in South Sudan are already assembled, and even if the resolution is passed, putting in place the practicalities of an effective sanctions regime will take too long. It is already too late for the embargo to play a fully preventative role in future atrocities.

At the end of his visit to Juba, Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide to the UN Secretary-General Adama Dieng said :

…Genocide is a process. It does not happen overnight.  And because it is a process and one that takes time to prepare, it can be prevented.  Action can and must be taken now to address some of the factors that could provide fertile ground for genocide. … My intention in reporting this assessment is to provide impetus for preventive action.

…There is a strong risk of violence escalating along ethnic lines, with the potential for genocide…In place of the development of a South Sudanese national identity, I have seen that there is extreme polarization between some tribal groups…

Inflammatory rhetoric, stereotyping and name calling have been accompanied by targeted killings and rape of members of particular ethnic groups, and by violent attacks against individuals or communities on the basis of their perceived political affiliation.  The media, including social media, are being used to spread hatred and encourage ethnic polarization…I am particularly concerned by the involvement of the youth of this country in this dangerous spread of hatred and hostility…The perpetrators and victims are not homogeneous, which makes an assessment of the risk of atrocity crimes in South Sudan very complex.  But the patterns are there.

When asked by a journalist whether ethnic cleansing had occurred, Dieng responded:

‘At this stage it is difficult to say, to determine that this is an ethnic cleansing, no. It is not yet the case. There is no genocide. If so I would not be here.’

So if genocide is imminent but hasn’t yet occurred, what does it look like? Can you write about the mechanics and modalities of atrocities that have not yet happened? While there are reasons to see such an exercise as speculative, I don’t want to be a writer only telling a tragic history after the bodies are cold. If better understanding can help the imperative to prevent, then such understanding should be pursued. From a policy point of view, the scenarios of possible atrocity do need to be considered, urgently, if any appropriate response is to be mustered.

The popular conception of genocide in Africa remains Rwanda in 1994, and South Sudan has both important commonalities with and differences from the Rwanda case.  Briefly: in common, as David Newbury set out in his 1998 article about the Rwandan genocide: ‘state power has more often provoked conflict than prevented it; in the case of the genocide, state power was part of the problem, not the solution.’

With respect to the perpetrators, Newbury notes the particularity of the circumstances in the early 90s: ‘they foresaw a diminution of their influence with any negotiated end to the [civil] war.  In effect, they drew on the economic disaffection of broad segments of the population to abort the process of political transition. The path they chose included first, the elimination of the emergent political opposition, mostly Hutu, and second, the extension of the search for enemies – and a prolongation of the war – by targeting the entire category of Tutsi within the country, regardless of their political stance or economic standing.’

Omar McDoom writes: ‘mass mobilisation, including collective violence, during the genocide was contingent on two main conditions, fulfilled in different ways in different parts of Rwanda…mobilisation required a mindset…of Hutu oppression at the hands of Tutsi…The second condition necessary…was the commitment of state institutions, which still had authority and/or power in the eyes of the population, to the genocidal project.
…the genocide is…misleadingly conceived of as a homogenous, indivisible event.’

Moise Jean explained: ‘the true motivation of the 1994 Rwandan genocide as more than just social divide and ethnic hatred between the Hutu and the Tutsi; but due to the seeds of the economic recession and the civil war.’

The point is that we need a more nuanced understanding of both circumstances and mechanics of what genocide could look like in South Sudan and how it could be carried out. We should also appreciate that there may not be a single story of genocide. Again, in the interests of prevention, the scenarios should be considered, particularly given the limited capacity of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) to respond, the ongoing delays in the deployment of the Regional Protection Force (RPF), and the inherent limitations of the RPF, which in any case is intended to be largely confined to the capital.

The possible scenarios are not unlimited, nor are they mutually exclusive.  Here are four:

  1. State-orchestrated acts of genocide, on direct orders from the politico-military authorities

In South Sudan, there will never be a written order or presidential decree saying that genocide should be committed. But the deliberate policy to prosecute the war by rounding up and killing citizens from ethnic groups seen as opposed to the government, if directed by senior members of the politico-military elite in Juba, would appear to meet the provisions of Article II (a, b and c) and Article III (a, b and c) of the 1948 Genocide Convention. The key difference in this scenario is its potential for much greater application across South Sudan, including in the capital and major regional cities beyond current areas of concern.

Article II: In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

Article III: The following acts shall be punishable:

(a) Genocide;

(b) Conspiracy to commit genocide;

(c) Direct and public incitement to commit genocide;

  1. Genocide in which senior, local military commanders commit acts of genocide, demonstrate intent to commit acts of genocide or are complicit in such acts

While it is common to hold the SPLA high command, especially army chief of staff Paul Malong, responsible for the actions of the army, in reality division and local commanders exercise a great deal of operational autonomy, and see their behaviour in tactical, counter-insurgency terms, where the ends justify the means.   Adama Dieng was most concerned about the situation in Yei, and just weeks before Dieng’s visit, researchers from Human Rights Watch documented numerous atrocities and possible war crimes in the Yei area, that largely seem to fit this scenario.

The situation is changing quickly: on Monday, the UN reported ‘a large number of militia have been moving into the Equatorias in support of a planned Government offensive.’ Yesterday, ceasefire monitors were reportedly prevented from visiting Yei. If Dieng and human rights researchers could visit just weeks earlier, what is changing in Yei to deny access today?

Here it is relevant to especially note provisions (d) and (e) of Article III of the Convention:

The following acts shall be punishable:

(d) Attempt to commit genocide;

(e) Complicity in genocide.

  1. Genocide in which mid-level military commanders commit acts of genocide, demonstrate intent to commit acts of genocide or are complicit in such acts

While largely a variant of the second scenario, it is crucial to understand that there can be atrocities committed by following the chain of command as well as atrocities committed as a result of a defunct or absent chain of command. Both circumstances have long prevailed in South Sudan: the presence or absence of command and control is not as binary as it might seem. It is also important to recognize that while Yei has the attention today, towns as varied in the Equatorias as Mundri and Yambio present similar risks, as do towns in other parts of South Sudan where there is ethno-political diversity, such as Wau.

  1. The ethnically targeted mass killing of civilians motivated by reprisal

The first three scenarios underscore the centrality of the state’s role in committing atrocities. But the prevalence of ethnically-targeted reprisal killings has intensified in the last six months, and state forces are not the only actors complicit and engaged in mass violence. Compared to the government and its militias, there is not equivalence in the organizational capacity of opposition forces, whether IO or non-IO, particularly in Equatoria. But opposition fragmentation also means a lack of accountability in informal military structures, and therefore indiscipline and the increasing likelihood of indiscriminate and disproportionate action by such forces. Particularly in the environs of Juba, there are numerous incidents where members of the Dinka community have been, or believe they have been, targeted for violence for being Dinka.  Perceived – accurately or not – as supporters of the incumbent government, Dinka are seen as legitimate targets by some opposition forces, worthy of reprisal for the actions of government forces elsewhere.

The civil war in 2013 spread to other parts of the country largely because of the massacre of Nuer civilians in Juba. While the theatre of potential atrocity has now shifted, similar trajectories of violence continue to be possible.  And it is here, that the practice of neighbour turning against neighbour becomes more probable.  For while those in authority or those best-armed may believe they can control the course of events, the lesser-armed may not simply submit, and meet violence with further violence.

Sadly relevant to South Sudan, I conclude by returning to McDoom:  ‘in different parts of the country there were different routes to genocide.’  We have been warned.

UPDATE 2000: CTSAMM issued a press release this evening stating it ‘sucessfully (sic) reached Yei town…after multiple discussions between the CTSAMM leadership and the authorities.’


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